What to see in Rome on your first visit

Rome is the dream destination of almost every city enthusiast: combine gorgeous ancient buildings with Italian cuisine, add some sunshine and is there really any destination that can top that?! Last year I visited Rome with my mom. I had been there before, but just to adjust a well-known quote: Rome is always a good idea. I had three perfect days in which I ate until I couldn’t walk, visited the most beautiful places and enjoyed the great weather. In this article I’ll share my very best tips on what to see in Rome on your first visit! I know the city can be intimidating, so I hope this helps!

How many days do I need in Rome?

I have spent three days in Rome. If I can remember it correctly we took an early flight on the first day, stayed three nights and flew back the day after. Rome is a city that has a lot to offer, especially if you love history. So you can easily spend three or four days here. We took it easy, with lots of spare time to eat, but if you want to visit a lot of museums then I might add an extra day if I were you. 

Top sights in Rome

Colosseum

One can’t start a list with tips for Rome with anything other than the one and only Colosseum: the icon of Rome. In case you you missed this part during your history classes: it is a Flavian amphitheater, built in the first century AD. It was the biggest amphitheater in the Roman Empire and was used as the stage for the famous Gladiator fights where gladiators fought against each other or against animals. Entrance is free on the first Sunday of every month. 

Roman Forum

The most incredible thing about Rome is the ancient history that you can find around every corner of the city. Like the Roman Forum, which is located near the Colosseum. The Forum used to be the center of Rome. If you stroll through here you can imagine how life must have been centuries ago. By making use of the information signs, you can see what it used to look like and what the buildings were used for. 

Palatine Hill

The Palatine Hill is one of the seven hills on which Rome was built. It used to be inhabited in the 10th century BC, long before the Romans even got here. It is also the hill on which the Emperor built his palace. You can reach the Palatine Hill by walking through the Roman Forum and by entering a gate at the Colosseum. It is a bit unclear where the Roman Forum ends and the Palatine Hill start, since they are located right next to each other. 

Combo-ticket Colosseum, Roman Forum & Palatine Hill

In case you want to visit all three attractions mentioned above, you could go for a combo-ticket. Even better: the ticket for the Colosseum already IS a combo-ticket. The tickets are valid for two days, but you can only enter each attraction once. So make sure you take enough water and food with you, since you can’t just go outside to buy something to drink and go back in again. 

Option 1: If you want to buy a ticket on the spot, then I suggest buying them at the Palatine Hill since the queues aren’t as long here. Despite that, I still spent half an hour waiting under the burning sun (there was no shadow anywhere near). The costs were about €12. Tickets are free when you are younger than 18 years, or older than 65. And if you are younger than 24, but older than 18, a ticket will cost you €7,50. 

Option 2: You can also buy your tickets online so you won’t have to wait in line! You simply exchange your voucher at a ticket office for people that have already made a reservation for the Colosseum. You will receive a ticket with a set time for your visit. You can visit the the Colosseum with the fast track entry at the given time. This ticket is also valid for you visit to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Tip: you don’t need to print the tickets, as you can show them on your smartphone. Click down here to check the availability for the online tickets.

 

Option 3: If you just want to visit the Colosseum, but don’t want to wait in line for an eternity, you can always go for the skip-the-line option. With this ticket you can enter the Colosseum with a guide, so you won’t have to wait in line for the ticket booth. Check the availability down here.

 

Pantheon

I can still remember years ago when I visited Rome with my family for the first time that we were looking for the Pantheon. We couldn’t find it, and got lost in the city, wandering side streets for what seemed like an eternity. Not so strange, since the Pantheon is located in the middle of a completely normal residential area. And then you take a turn, and: BAM! There it is. A temple from 125 AD. Just a regular day in Rome. The temple is world famous because of the coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus). This is to make sure that the dome is flexible and resistant to earthquakes. The oculus is the only light source, and forms the link to the heavens. Entrance is free, but do keep in mind the long (though fast-moving) queue. 

Trevi Fountain

If you are a real romantic, then you shouldn’t miss the Trevi Fountain during your stay in Rome. Legend says that when you offer a coin to the fountain, you are certain to one day return back to Rome. Which is a blessing for the city government, as it yields about 1.4 million euros each year! I really think the Trevi Fountain is one of the most gorgeous fountains ever, with its white stones, clear blue water and its enormous size. 

The Spanish Steps

Taking a quick break from the Roman history: the Spanish Steps are -surprisingly- built in the 18th century. It connects a French church and a square, on which the Spanish Embassy used to be located (hence the name), in an Italian city. On top of the stairs you find the Pincio (the Pincian Hill) and a little further Villa Borghese (read about that later in this article). When I was there, the stairs were being restored, because of some football hooligans who decided that the stairs were in need of reconstruction. 

Vatican City

The smallest country in the world, completely closed in by Rome: Vatican City. Another country to check off of your bucket list :-). Vatican City is the seat of the Pope, but of course he isn’t the only resident. There are 770 other people living here. Vatican City is built in by a wall, and is only accessible from certain places (mentioned below). It is definitely worth a visit, but please make sure you do some research when visiting the attractions, because it can be very crowded. Also be sure to wear something that covers your shoulders and knees when visiting the places mentioned below, as they are places of worship. 

St Peter’s Basilica

One of the prettiest and most iconic buildings in the city is the St Peter’s Basilica. This Catholic Basilica dates from the Middle Ages and is always crowded. It is used as a pilgrimage place for the Catholics, and used to be the largest church in the world. Many of the Pope’s speeches are held on the square in front of the Basilica. Entrance is free and we had to wait about half an hour before we could enter. 

Sistine chapel

The Sistine chapel is world famous, because of its famous painting by Michelangelo. It is located in a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, as a part of the Vatican Museums (mentioned down below). The space is pretty small, but the paintings are really pretty. There isn’t much time to enjoy, however: you are not allowed to take any pictures, you have to be quiet and you have to go with the group. This is also the the room where a new Pope will be chosen. The chapel is only accessible when visiting the Vatican Museums.

Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums is a group of museums in the Apostolic Palaces where some of the most important masterpieces of the Vatican are located. The things you can find here include some of the paintings of Leonardo Davinci, Caravaggio and Rafael. This is also where you can find the Sistine chapel. The Vatican Museums are free to visit on the last Sunday of each month.

 

Tickets & skip-the-line options Vatican City:

There are two things that you will probably notice once you reach the Vatican City. First of all, it is so crowded that all you can see is a sea of people! You will find most of them in either the line for the St Peter’s Basilica, ór in line for the Vatican Museums. The second thing that you will probably notice are the super aggressive sales people that try to sell you tours, while telling big lies (for example that the line can take up to 3 – 4 hours, or that you can’t pay by card in the museum – which you can). To be honest it did ruin my trip here. But I would have been able to avoid it if I were better prepared. So I’m here to help you. You have two options, and which option is best for you, depends on what you want. Here are my tips for a carefree visit to the Vatican City:

 

Option 1: The first option is to buy a ticket for the Vatican Museums directly at the Museums for €16. If you turn the corner when walking towards the Museums (or perhaps even earlier), you will notice the line in front of Museums right away. From that moment on the tour-sellers will start bothering you. I recommend you to just ignore them, walk up to the front of the queue and ask the people standing in line how long they have been waiting. This way you will get a good indication of how long the queue will take. We only had to wait half an hour, but I can imagine that it might take longer in mid-summer, or during the weekend. Does it still take too long? Then you can always go for a skip-the-line ticket.

Option 2: The second option is to buy a skip-the-line ticket for the Vatican Museums. This way you can just skip the line altogether. You can save €4 when visiting the Museums between 08:00 and 15:30, but trust me – this is for the best. Otherwise it would be so crowded that you will barely be able to move (which is what happened to us). Check the availability of the tickets down below. Tip: you can just show them the ticket using your smartphone, so you won’t have to print anything. 

Option 3: I recommend using these skip-the-line tickets if you’d rather visit the Museums on your own time. With this you can just skip the line altogether, but because you can choose your own time it will cost a little bit more than the other one. 

 

Option 4: Do you prefer going on a tour and learn even more about the places you visit? Then ignore those annoying sales people on the street who want to scam you (some of them were so rude!) and just buy a ticket online. This way you will know for sure that you will get the best price, get a professional guide and you can just sign in using your smartphone. This tour includes a visit to to the St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine chapel. You don’t have to wait in line and will joined by a small tour-group of less than 25 people. The tour guide shows you around in 3.5 hours and will tell you everything you need to know about the masterpieces and history of these places. The tour has a 4.5/5 star rating. Check the availability of the tour here. But don’t do business with the street salesmen, because they are just trying to scam you!

 

Reminder: the entrance to the St Peter’s Basilica is free. But you will have to stand in line. The only option in order to skip this line is to go in with tour guide. Visiting the dome, however, does require a fee.

 

Piazza Navona

This big square is worth visiting, because of the beautiful fountain Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. In the middle you will find an Egyptian obelisk. This square was used as a market square during the Middle Ages. The building is surrounded by beautiful architecture. A Christmas market is held here every year during winter.

Piazza del Popolo

‘Square of the people’ is the literal translation of the name. We noticed this right away since there was a protest going on at that time. We could only make out that it had something to do with the Health care. The square is relatively new since it was built in 1811-1812. You will find an Egyptian obelisk on this square as well. If you climb the stair you will reach Pincio Hill. Read more about Pincio down below.

Pincio Promenade

Located just north of the old city is Piazza del Popolo, and just above that you will find Pincio Promenade (located on Pincio Hill of course). This is a hill, but not one of the original seven hills that Rome is built on. From the Pincio Promenade you will have a beautiful view over the city. Highly recommended when you want to get a break from all the bustle of the city. 

Villa Borghese

If you really want to escape all the bustle then it is best to go to Villa Borghese, which you can find just behind the Pincio Promenade. This park is about 80 hectares, and when you stroll through it you can’t even imagine that you’re in the middle of a metropolis. The park also has a world famous masterpiece with the same name. Check the availability of the museum tickets down below.

 

Castel’ San Angelo

Castel’ San Angelo (Castle of the Angels) is an amazing viewpoint in Rome. For that reason alone it is definitely worth a visit. The castle is built on the same place as the archangel Michael was seen, which explains the statue on the roof. The castle used to be a mausoleum and dates from 135 AD. Later the castle was used as fortress for Vatican City, which is located next to it and lies just outside of the original Roman City. There even is a passage between the papal palace and Castel’ San Angelo, so that if there is any danger the pope will be able to hide. Buy skip-the-line tickets in order to skip the lines. 

 

Ponte Sant’Angelo

Next to Castel’ San Angelo (bridge of the Angels) you will find maybe even one the most beautiful bridges of Rome: the Ponte Sant’Angelo. On each side of the bridge there is a statue of an Angel, which is where the name originate from. The Ponte Sant’Angelo was built in 134 AD by Emperor Hadrianus. The statues date from 1527.

 

The best hotels in Rome

For people who don’t need much luxury, this will be the deal of the century: a three-star hotel in the middle of Rome. Caesar Palace Guesthouse has its own bathrooms, even offering bathrobes, starting from €37 per room per night. Hotel Giotto Flavia is also a good option, for just €41 per room per night. The hotel has 21 comfortable rooms including a fridge and Wi-Fi. Source photo: Agoda.

€€ At a stone’s throw away from the Colosseum lies the B&B circus Maximus, a small stylish B&B with a minimalistic interior and free Wi-Fi. The bathrooms are shared, however. The prices start from €54 per room per night. In the heart of the city lies Ducale Hotel Rome. This three-star hotel doesn’t just have very nice rooms, but also an amazing courtyard garden, which is perfect for relaxing after a long day of sightseeing. Starting from €54 per night. Source photo: Agoda.

€€€ For a bit more budget-luxury you can consider Hotel Oxford. A four-star hotel offering amazing service, such as valet parking and nannies for children. Ultimate luxury in classic stylish rooms, starting from €93 per night. If you really want to enjoy your Rome trip and you love a little bit of modern design, than Rome Life Hotel is a gift specially made for you. It seems like a designer home, with a bathtub placed in the center of the stylish bedroom. Source photo: Agoda.

I stayed at an Airbnb apartment. Actually, it was just a disguised hotel, which was too bad. But it was a cheap stay. In case you also want to make a booking on Airbnb and you want a €30 discount, check out this article.

What are your tips for sights to see and things to do on your trip to Rome?

Travel essentials:

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What to see in Rome on your first visit

22 comments

  1. Mayochup

    Nice post. We are of to Rome this October so this is useful, thank you

    Reply

  2. stephanie

    I was in Rome years ago and I loved Villa Borghese (although whole Rome is pretty impressive).
    x

    Reply

  3. Lenka

    Lovely photos and very useful guide! I have been in Rome two year ago but spent there just one rainy day so I did not fully enjoy it just running between the sightseeing spots. Would love to go back there for more days and truly enjoy the eternal city!

    Reply

  4. Laura Harris

    Really useful, especially the info on tickest! I can’t wait to go to Rome someday, I know I’ll absolutely love it…

    Reply

    1. Explorista

      I’m glad it helped Laura! Thanks :)

      Reply

  5. Rosalie

    Great guide! I wish I’d seen this before my last trip to Rome :)

    Reply

    1. Explorista

      Hope you had a great time regardless! :)

      Reply

  6. Pia

    I would love to go to Rome immediately. I read so much great stuff about this city. Thank you for the great tips of things to do and the most important sights to see. I believe you can easily spent more time in this city than three days but for a sort of weekend trip it should be an awesome experience. Thanks for sharing them

    Reply

  7. Nina

    I went to Rome as part of a trip I earned through an old job. They had a whole itinerary for us and I saw many of these places. I love castles, though, so I will have to make sure to go see the castle next time I’m in Rome.

    Reply

  8. Anna

    It’s a truly beautiful and excellent post, Milou. Saving it for later.

    Reply

  9. Vanessa

    Great guide to the city. I love Rome, and hope to make it back there soon! I think the only place on your list I haven’t been is Pincio Promenade and Villa Borghese, so I’ll definitely check those out.

    Reply

    1. Explorista

      It’s never a bad thing to have to return to Rome :)

      Reply

  10. Rachel Silverwood

    This post is super helpful and your pictures just gorgeous!! I’ll be visiting in October (in a bid to miss some of the crowds) and can’t wait :) I’ll definitely return to order tickets to the Vatican and Colloseum through your links!
    Happy travels x

    Reply

    1. Explorista

      You’re the sweetest Rachel! Enjoy your trip <3

      Reply

  11. Jordan

    Gorgeous photos and such great, in-depth information! I’ll definitely be using this guide when I next visit Rome :)

    Reply

    1. Explorista

      Glad to be of help Jordan!

      Reply

  12. Lisa

    Great post. Rome is such a beautiful city and each of the site on your list are amazing.

    Reply

  13. Chloe

    This is such a detailed guide! I’d love to visit the Trevi fountain although I’d imagine it’s very touristy. Also I need to visit the Vatican City at some point, I can’t believe it’s another country!

    Reply

    1. Explorista

      I know right! The Trevi Fountain IS very touristy, but since it’s a public fountain you can visit it anytime during the day! :)

      Reply

  14. Ioanna

    Thank you so much for this article! I’m heading to Rome with my Mom in October, both of us for the first time! I hope the crowds are gone by then! :)

    Happy travels,
    Ioanna – A Woman Afoot

    Reply

  15. Medona Malmberg

    Brilliant post. I will be visiting Rome soon and am planning my trip. This post cetainly helps. Thanks! Donna

    Reply

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